Handout 3: Loss: The Litmus Test of a Religious Faith

Excerpted from Liberal Religion's Response to Loss, 1985 Minns Lectures, by John H. Nichols. Reprinted with permission of author.

Some time ago a colleague of mine was interviewing for a new ministry, and the search committee, having read all of his best credentials, had one concern. They said, "You seem to speak a great deal about grief. Now, we are a youngish congregation. We have, perhaps, four to five funerals a year, and we wonder if you have an interest in the younger members of the congregation. In fact, to be perfectly frank, we wonder if you haven't styled for yourself a geriatric ministry." This perception of the significance of grief is not limited to the young. An older member of my own congregation said to me once, "You speak too much about grief. I want to hear something uplifting on Sunday mornings. Why is it necessary to be so depressing?"

No doubt there are those who, when they saw the announcement of this lecture series, said, "Who would want to listen to, let alone prepare, five lectures on grief?" I understand the apprehension. At a certain point in my ministry it would have occurred to me also that dealing with grief would be one of those crosses a minister had to bear in order to get on to some of the more rewarding aspects of a career. Quite to the contrary, most ministers will say that they feel more in touch with their calling when dealing with grief than at almost any other time. We are not being ghoulish when we say this, but we are recognizing that when we share grieving with our people we are facing the most moving religious issues that a person can confront. If a religion cannot talk about grief with credibility, then it cannot find credibility on any other subject.

Like many people, the young members of the search committee who perceived grief as a geriatric problem were wrong. Grief is the experience of sadness, which happens after any loss. We don't like to think about our losses, but in our growing up there have been a number of them for each of us. Each loss conditions us, for better or worse, for the next. Our happiness in maturity depends upon the ways in which we have accepted our losses. It depends on how or whether we have grieved along the way.

This seems strange because we are not accustomed to thinking of grief in any way other than that associated with death. Nevertheless, people grieve when they clearly cease to have the protections of childhood. They grieve when they go away from home for the first time. They grieve when they have to give up their first love. They grieve when they suffer a serious illness or injury. They grieve when they leave each stage of life for another. People grieve when they change jobs or homes; when they leave one beloved and comfortable community for another. For a teenager the end of an infatuation or friendship can bring on a grief as profound and as serious as the grief which may follow the death of a grandparent. If we minimize the grief of the young or the old, or our own grief, for whatever reason it may occur, then we do not contribute to their strengthening and growing or to our own.

Grieving is putting the world back together again. In rational moments we think of the universe as something which exists independently of us. Indeed it does; but how we feel about the universe is determined by how we feel about the people closest to us. As James Carse puts it, "If we are alienated from other existing beings, isolated in the human community, lacking any warmth of personal affection, we are living in a forbidding and largely disordered cosmos. If our lives are, on the other hand, rich in shared intimacy, the cosmos takes the dimensions of a vast home. However, it is also true that in this latter case we are much more vulnerable to the disordering of the basic structures of our lives by the deaths of significant others." (1)

The richer our lives are the more vulnerable we are to loss. Each loss involves a partial disintegrating of the universe in which we live—and at least a challenge to our way of looking at life and the world. For better or worse, we are conditioned to meet these challenges by the ways in which we were encouraged to adapt to earlier losses in our lives. Grief is not to be belittled. It is the very process by which we grow up either to confront the world in which loss is always possible, meet it on its terms and enjoy it, or to hide from it.

Why should we look at grief? Why should we look at anything else before we can come to understand grief? Grieving is not, as is commonly believed, the weak side of human nature. It is the process by which we strengthen ourselves for the task of living courageously in a universe in which there is very little security even as there is a great deal of happiness and love. Since grieve we inevitably will, if we grieve well we will live well. Grieving is a way of taking one's view of the world—a view which has been shattered by a loss that is deeply felt—and putting that picture back together in a way that more adequately forms a picture of one's present personal universe.

These lectures will seek to look at grief in the Unitarian Universalist context. My view is that we must have an articulate perspective on grief before we can speak sensibly to any other serious personal issue. If we cannot help one another to reorder the universe of meanings that has been effectively shattered by a serious loss, then we cannot have credibility on any other issue… [People] may join liberal religious churches for a variety of reasons, but finally they will judge us, and many may already have judged us, upon our willingness and ability to be with them as they travel through the valley of the shadow. Are we a sunshine religion only, or a religion for all of the seasons of human life? By examining the past and the present in a useful context these lectures will attempt to pose an answer to that question.

The Study of Loss

In 1942, on a Saturday evening, the Coconut Grove night club burst into flames, probably as a result of a match which was struck accidentally too close to the lavish decorations. The night club was filled with young…[people] who were celebrating the climax of a Fall weekend and with sailors on leave from the nation's military rearmament. Within a few minutes well over a hundred people died because they were trapped in what rapidly became an inferno. The Coconut Grove fire was a significant landmark in American history for many reasons, but one of these is the subsequent grief work done by Dr. Erich Lindemann, then Chief of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor at Harvard.

Following up on over one hundred relatives of the victims, Lindemann discovered that they all exhibited fairly similar symptoms. These he called the "symptomatology of normal grief." His wording was significant, for prior to this time many psychiatrists regarded grief as an abnormal process—more bluntly, a sickness of the mind. Lindemann pioneered in the study of grief as a normal, and under most circumstances, necessary process of living.

He found several symptoms which were common to most of his patients. Summarized, they were: 1. a marked tendency to give physical expression to the feeling of helplessness, frustration and anger, 2. complaints about lack of strength, fatigue; 3. feelings of depression expressed as emptiness, hollowness. In more serious cases of bereavement, Lindemann found these symptoms: "1.The appearance of hyperactivity, which seems to suggest a denial of the loss and a desire to escape the pain of the loss. 2. The subtle acquisition of medical symptoms which once belonged to the deceased. 3. A serious recognized medical disease, possibly brought on by somatic tension. 4. A marked alteration in the patient's relationships with friends, involving usually a distancing from that person's friends. 5. Furious, often unexplainable anger against specific persons. 6. A feeling that the patient is going crazy. 7. A serious disruption of the patient's ability to continue his or her old patterns of involvement with other people. 8. The patient may even act in ways which are detrimental to [their] … own political or economic well-being. 9. The grief reaction takes the form of a straight agitated depression with tension, agitation, insomnia, feelings of worthlessness, bitter self-accusation, and obvious need for punishment." (2)

Commenting on Lindemann's work almost twenty years later, William Rogers said, "Since clergymen are deeply involved with the bereaved, these studies of grief should be of great concern to them. Dr. Lindemann's discoveries have much to say about the funeral and our total relationship to those whose loved ones have died. Many clergyman have seen this, though percentage-wise the number of those who have would seem to be rather small. What apparently has not impressed clergymen is that psychologically the grief caused by the loss of a loved one is quite similar to the loss experiences suffered throughout life. Helping a child to handle his separation experiences could be meaningful not only in terms of meeting his present psychological needs but in his preparation for the day when someone near and dear to him will die. Grief permeates life, and learning to live with it is a process which should be an essential part of one's development." (3)

Unfortunately, for many years most clergymen and many other helping professionals were unable to see grief as a friend of health. Nor were they impressed with its pervasiveness in all aspects of our lives. Howard Clinebell's Basic Types of Pastoral Counseling, a standard textbook for its time (1966), considers the subject of grief under the heading, "Counseling in the Crisis of Bereavement", to which five pages are devoted. (4)

In 1969 Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published On Death and Dying and a new era in the understanding of grief began. What is remarkable about this book is not its conclusions, which are reformulations of Lindemann's findings, but its straightforward, compassionate look at the feelings of dying people and those who surround them. The response of many helping professionals to this work opened the flood gates of research and comment on all aspects of grief.

Having been able to look honestly and unapologetically at the grieving which goes on in many phases of normal lives, theologians and clergy have begun to ask questions about the nature of God in a world where much grieving happens. As a result, two remarkable books have been published fairly recently: Harold Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People and All Our Losses, All Our Griefs by Kenneth R. Mitchell and Herbert Anderson. Both books attempt to develop a theology for liberal Christians and Jews based on the existential experience of loss.

Pastoral psychology and theology have come a long way in just sixteen years.

What Grief Is

If we are going to understand the Unitarian Universalist approach to grief, we will have to know a little more about what grief is. A simple definition would be, "Grief is the normal but bewildering cluster of ordinary human emotions arising in response to a significant loss, intensified and complicated by the relationship to the person or the object lost. Guilt, shame, loneliness, anxiety, anger, terror, bewilderment, emptiness, profound sadness, despair, helplessness—all are part of grief and all are common to being human. Grief is the clustering of some or all of these emotions in response to loss." (5)

What follows will be a brief description of some of the emotions which are a part of grief. These emotions must be understood and addressed by clergy and others who seek to assist grieving individuals and so it will be helpful to keep them in mind as we look at what Unitarian Universalists have actually said about loss.

1. Numbness: Friends and relatives frequently wonder at the poise of the widow who seemingly sails through the days following her husband's death. She is here and there throughout the community, making funeral arrangements, ordering flowers, consulting her attorney and answering cards and letters. At the reception following the funeral she is gracious and welcoming and shows no signs of fatigue or grief. In a private moment she may say to a friend, "I know this is all going to hit me some time, but right now I really don't feel anything."

One of our survival mechanisms is that we can shield ourselves from the immediate realization of a serious loss. A numbness takes hold of our lives which wears off gradually as we are able to cope with the truth of what has happened. Unfortunately, this calm before the storm invites the social approval of friends because they are made more comfortable by our apparent stoicism than by our raw feelings. "She's doing so well," many will say and hope that this really is so. Later they will be baffled and hurt when the same widow retreats to the privacy of self-isolation, because only in isolation can she bear the full weight of her sorrow. Few will want to share it with her.

2. Emptiness, loneliness, and isolation: "Emptiness is the sense of being diminished from within. Loneliness is its interpersonal counterpart, the sense that one's surroundings are also empty of people who matter or care. Isolation is the sense of being divided from others by invisible, incomprehensible boundaries." (6)

One's sense of self and of the very meaning of life is related to the relationships that each person has with others. When a friend dies, particularly a close friend, particularly a spouse, that sense of self is diminished. It almost feels that something of oneself has been cut away or drained out. C. S. Lewis, in his moving account of grieving over the death of his wife, wrote, "There's one place where her absence comes locally home to me, and it's a place I can't avoid. I mean my own body. It had such a different importance while it was the body of its lover. Now it's like an empty house." (7)

The loneliness and isolation that people in grief feel is both self-imposed and other imposed. On the one hand, when a universe is shattered by a loss, that person does not feel secure enough to be vulnerable to any but the most understanding friends. But on the other hand, most people find it very frightening to be with someone who is so nakedly helpless before the world. Readily, they will take any signal that the person in grief really wants to be left alone, even when the signals are unintended.

3. Fear and anxiety: It is frightening to have your world shattered. We establish our lives on the basis of certain expectations and when there is a significant challenge to those expectations we are faced with the task of putting things back together again in a new way. Can we be the same person; as happy, as confident, as secure when we reconstruct the pieces? There is no good answer to this question in advance of the actual experience of loss, and so we are deeply frightened when the occasion arises.

There are good reasons to be frightened. These may include the loss of a job, the loss of an income and the loss of secure friendships. In addition, there is again a cultural reason for having this feeling. There are always going to be those who are frightened by us. Viewing our calamities with perhaps even greater alarm than we do, they think, "There but for the grace of God go I.” Their subtle departure from our lives increases our sense of fear.

4. Guilt and shame: Against all evidence we privately believe that we can control the workings of fate. Thoughts like, "If only I had done this or that; if only we had had a third consultation, seen the doctor sooner; if only I had been a better person this terrible thing would not have happened. "At this stage of grief even the most rational of people become irrational, believing in a kind of magic. "If only I had done this or that... if only."

The second reason that guilt or shame becomes a part of grief is that we are never the people we would like to be or think we ought to be. At any given time most people can give a detailed summary of the ways in which they failed those they loved. They resolve to do better but, at least in some respects, they never do a lot better. These thoughts come back when a serious loss is suffered.

Finally we must reckon again with the impact of grieving on society. The normal necessary process of grieving takes longer for our friends than we would like it to take, and therefore we convey subtle signals that we are ready for them to give up their grief. These signals frequently are received. Again I quote C. S. Lewis because he is so much to the point. "An odd byproduct of my loss is that I'm aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet... Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers." (8)

Here is another example: "A psychiatrist working in an institution that served retarded children lost his wife after a long illness. His colleagues avoided him, mumbling condolences that did not add up to a full English sentence. It was a great relief to him when a small retarded boy bluntly said to him, 'Doctor, your wife died.' 'Yes,' responded the psychiatrist. 'That must hurt a lot,' said the boy. The doctor later commented that it was a profound and helpful remark, in contrast to the responses of his psychiatric colleagues. " (9)

5. Anger: We don't like being left. We don't like being hurt. When this happens we become angry. As far as we know humankind is the only species of animal that believes in a just universe. "Traumatic loss upsets our illusion that we live in an orderly world. If we can find someone or something to blame we can continue to avoid the fact that life is uncertain and precarious." (10)

We look for targets and there are many. There is the doctor who did not respond to our calls; the funeral director who charged too much; the minister who spoke too long at mother's funeral; the friends who did not send a card; the lawyer who is delaying the completion of the probate; the insurance company that will not make a settlement. There are infinite targets for anger. But the anger that occurs has little to do with anything anyone actually did. It is anger directed toward the chaos which we feel in our life when a serious loss has shattered our orderly universe.

C. S. Lewis. who has written many books for Christian laypeople, wrote on the death of his wife, "If God's goodness is inconsistent with hurting us, then either God is not good or there is no God: for in the only life we know He hurts us beyond our worst fears and beyond all we can imagine. Step by step we were led by the garden path. Time after time when he seemed most gracious He was really preparing us for the next torture." (11)

6. Sadness and despair: We are drained. We feel empty. There is no joy in our life, no energy, no drive, no hope. We can see no future that is happy, no present that is comfortable. We cannot shake this feeling. Even this is upsetting because in the past we have found tricks of the mind to rouse ourselves from the depressions that came along. This is a sadness that does not move, and we almost become convinced that it will be a feature of our lives forever.

We know that our friends have almost given up on us. They discuss our situation in the tones of people who are talking about someone who has contracted a fatal disease. They've tried everything they can think of to cheer us up, but the cloud hangs over our days and over our nights.

7. Somatization: Job laments in the midst of his grief that "By night pain pierces my very bones, and there is ceaseless throbbing in my veins (Job 30:17 NEB). When we grieve the loss of something important to us, we grieve with our whole body. We feel the pain literally, physically.

On September 24, 1984, the New York Times reported the findings of the National Academy of Sciences that "There is good evidence linking bereavement to a number of adverse health outcomes in some people." During the year or two following the death of a loved one, cigarette, alcohol and drug consumption are a particular risk. But we already knew that, for many times have we seen the death of a spouse, followed for no particular reason, by the death of the surviving spouse.

The entire process of grieving can have an essentially good outcome. We in the church need to recognize that the messiness of grief has a purpose. Perhaps we have assumed that the purpose of religion is to help people lead successful lives, by which we really mean to handle their pain quickly and expeditiously. When our friends are in profound grief we wonder, Have we failed? Has the church failed? Have they failed?

We in the liberal church may have a particular problem with this. We have been committed to a religion which applies reason and practical judgment to spiritual concerns, but there is nothing rational about the experience of grieving. Nothing, at least, is rational to the person who is recovering from a serious loss. Do we have and have we had the patience, the compassion and the humanity, perhaps most of all the faith in life to stand by while our friends are in the midst of their suffering? Or do we seek a quick fix, a ready explanation, glib advice or poetic/theological overtones to drown out their suffering or deny it altogether? We shall see. Before these lectures are over, each person will have the opportunity to arrive at his or her conclusions.

Eugene Kennedy offers this advice for those who are concerned about their friends who grieve.

There is no substitute for permitting a person to face all of these difficulties directly. They deal with a drastic change in their identity: to exchange one's self concept as a wife for one as a widow cannot be done in an instant. This demands major reorganization of the whole perceptual system; the person literally has to develop a new way of looking at the self. Again, this takes time and the freedom to be weak or depressed in the process. Grieving individuals may be preoccupied with the lost person and with the many memories of the past as they experience a deep loneliness. At the heart of all the range of feelings during grief, the bereaved is trying to come to terms with a major life experience. The concept of work—of needing slowly and thoroughly to process the many aspects of mourning—is appropriate for this struggle to come through on the other side of grief. (12)

We have looked at what grief is and how it appears to us in our lives, through symptoms of shock, emptiness, fear, guilt, anger, deep sadness and somatization. In subsequent lectures we will examine whether or not these feelings and needs are addressed by our Nineteenth Century Christian forebears, by our early Twentieth Century Humanist leaders and by twenty contemporary Unitarian Universalist ministers. How will we judge them? With our forebears we have a problem, for with a few exceptions, we cannot know what went on in their private thoughts when they confronted the darkest moments of their lives and of the lives of their friends. By perusing a few diaries, letters and biographies, we can know what they hoped they had done or intended to do and this will have to be enough.

Much of their public recognition of grieving took place at funerals or memorial services, and so we will look at that context and its therapeutic value next.

The Funeral or Memorial Service

The funeral is not the solution to grief and it is not the end to grief. The funeral usually occurs at the beginning of the grieving process while the bereaved is still in a state of shock and not feeling the full weight of the loss. It is a rehearsal of the values which the community feels should apply to the particular loss which death is. A funeral is a public statement of the promises and commitments which the community members have made to themselves. It is a reflection of what they feel transcends the trauma of loss and of the consolations they expect to have (eventually) in the event of loss.

There are those in the liberal tradition who have discounted the funeral as a pompous and unnecessary ritual. However, most professionals who work with grief believe that the funeral or memorial service is extremely important. In Paul Irion's words,

The funeral itself is only one part, sometimes even a small part, in the whole psychological process of meeting bereavement. Yet because of its public nature it is extremely important. It represents the response of the community to the emotional experiences of the mourners. Thus, it cannot be regarded as either irrelevant or contradictory to the psychological process of acceptance, release, expression or assimilation that enable the mourner to endure and overcome the tremendous disorganization of his life that has taken place. (13)

The funeral or memorial service has several vital functions, and I borrow from Mr. Irion's article.

To reinforce the reality of death. A loss has occurred though it feels unreal to those most closely affected. The purpose of the funeral is to bring this reality home in as gentle a way possible.

To provide a framework of supportive relationships for the mourners. By facing the loss together and accepting it, a major barrier between the mourners has been eased away. Now, they can be more honest with one another.

To make possible the acknowledgment and expression of the mourners' feelings. These feelings are shock, anger, guilt, deep sadness, loneliness and a feeling that the world has been turned upside down. There must be some acknowledgment that these feelings are possible and reasonable or the funeral has no effective place in the grief process.

To mark a fitting conclusion to the life of the one who has died. A person has left us. Who was that person? What did he or she mean to us? We need to begin this kind of talking so that it can continue over the many weeks and months that grief will remain with the mourners.

Finally, the purpose of such a service is to bring the shared values of the community to bear on this particular loss. No reasonable person would expect that the consolations which are uttered at the time of such a service will have much effect on those most closely impacted at that time. But such a service is the only time we have to say publicly, in so many words, though death has won this battle it has not won the war.

Funeral and memorial observances in all of their occasional extravagance, complexity, awkwardness, and even expense are vital and necessary ways for a religious tradition to acknowledge that it can deal with the trials of living. They are "worthwhile...in emphasizing that he or she is worth the pain and stress of grieving, which the mourners now acutely feel." (14)

For many mourners who spend the initial days after their loss in shock, the funeral is the first occasion they will have for honest grief. It seems sad then that a number of religious liberals request either no service at all or a "celebration" of the departed person's life with nary a word about loss or grieving. What this may say about our willingness to recognize our losses will be covered very shortly.


We have confronted the reality and the nature of grief. We have looked at its symptoms, and we have examined the feelings that are associated with it. We have recognized that dealing with grief—the utter disorganization of one's personal universe—may be the supreme religious problem. We have looked at one way in which the community deals with grief publicly, the funeral. Now, we are ready to look at some of the ways in which the liberal religious movement has spoken to loss over the many years.

We are known, and we know ourselves to be, a rational, sensible, sunny, upbeat type of religion. We believe we have better, easier solutions to human problems than those proposed by some other religions. But grief does not lend itself easily to this approach. It is understandable but does not always feel rational. Grieving, and watching people grieve, is a journey into the darkest recesses of the human emotional world. It is a journey to a place we have been reluctant to admit exists. It is a place where despair and emptiness are very real feelings.

Those who would make the journey and return must learn that sometimes there is very little one can do about a bad situation but live through it. Sometimes, explanations are not helpful.

Sometimes we want our religious faith to help us face the darker side of life, admit that it exists and absolve us from any blame for the terror we are experiencing or for our feeling desperate and weak. These are genuine religious needs. Has the liberal religious tradition really met them? This is the question I propose to ask.


1. James Carse, "Grief as a Cosmic Crisis," Acute Grief, ed. Otto Margolis et al., Columbia

University Press, 1981.

2. Erich Lindemann, "Symptomatology and Management of Acute Grief," reprinted in Pastoral Psychology, September 1963, originally written May 1944.

3. William Rogers, "Grief: Erich Lindemann's Contribution to Our Understanding Of It," Pastoral Care of the Dying and Bereaved, ed. Robert B. Reeves, Health Sciences Publishing, 1973.

4. Howard Clinebell, Basic Types of Pastoral Counseling, Abingdon Press, 1966.

5. Kenneth R. Mitchell and Herbert Anderson, All Our Losses, All Our Griefs, The Westminster Press, 1983, p. 55.

6. Ibid., p. 64.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., p. 77.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid., p. 79.

11. Ibid.

12. Eugene Kennedy, On Becoming a Counselor, Seabury Press, 1977, p. 253.

13. Paul Irion, "The Funeral and the Bereaved," Acute Grief and the Funeral, ed. Vanderlyn R. Pine, et aI., Charles G. Thomas, 1976, p. 35.

14. Ibid., p. 16.